Walking with Washington

July has been all about driving our resident musicians around, often tracing paths worn by George Washington. Both of our kids are in the Fifes and Drums of Yorktown (William is a drummer, and Jacqueline is a fifer), and both are also in their high school band (William in percussion; Jacqueline in flute/piccolo). We’ve been very fortunate, some might say “strategic,” in that our kids’ activities have coincided to a tremendous degree. As stressful as it may sometimes seem for us to transport the two of them to all of the musical practices and performances, and to all the swim practices and meets, it would be doubly so if we were taking one kid to these activities and the other kid to some set of entirely different activities. I know some parents do that. So we’re fortunate. Or clever. Whichever.

All that said, this month, although often fun, educational, or otherwise rewarding, has been undeniably exhausting. From our home base in Yorktown, we went from a weekend trip to Mt. Vernon, about three hours north of us, to two trips (drop-off and pick-up) at Sweetbriar College, four hours west of us, right into a longer weekend trip up to Philadelphia, which is anywhere from six to ten hours north of us depending upon the traffic around DC. This weekend, I’m happy to have all of that behind us and to be just putzing around the hometown.

For the Mt. Vernon trip, we drove up the Friday before the Independence Day weekend for a two-day series of performances. The first performance was at 1100, so we left at 0700 to allow time for a pit stop and to don uniforms. We made good time and, upon our arrival at the estate, we found our way to the security gate without too much trouble. After parking, we were directed inside one of several modern administrative buildings that have been constructed on the estate, tastefully tucked to one side so as not to be visible when strolling the main grounds. Inside, the kids were able to change into their uniforms and wait comfortably for show time.

And here I shall relate what, to me at least, is an amusing anecdote. While the kids were dressing and otherwise preparing for their performance, I wandered around inside the building looking at the artwork and whatnot. I was examining a diorama of the estate when I heard a tapping noise off to the side. I looked over, and none other than George himself was standing outside one of the doors, plainly visible through the glass, seeking entry.

You must understand here that my past work environments have instilled within me a certain reflexive persnicketyness about building security. Unlike our elected officials (and I’m being entirely nonpartisan here), I’ve always been at risk of job loss for committing security violations. Therefore, as George and I were eyeball-to-eyeball through the glass (he was stooping down–the man is really tall), I will admit that I hesitated one or two nanoseconds before opening the door. My hesitation was perceptible. Washington did not break composure, but just stood there, silently radiating gravitas.

And I let him in.

“I suppose this is okay,” I said. “You appear to be authentic.”

“Yes,” he said. “This is my joint.”

We chatted very briefly about the kids, who were just about ready to head out the door. I asked if he could manage a photo op with them. He said he would be happy to do so. I would have enjoyed talking his ear off–I once did research on Thomas Paine, who had a stormy relationship with Washington–but he politely let me know he needed to deal with some family business on his phone, so I let him be.

The man’s actual name is Dean Malissa, and his portrayal of Washington is legendary. A good article on how he got the gig is here. A particularly salient point from the article, in the context of this blog, is that Malissa completely changed his life course at age 49, when he decided to abandon corporate life and become an actor. Seriously, read the article. It’s inspiring.

In his Washington persona, Malissa reminded me very much of Clay Jenkinson, whom I have seen perform as Thomas Jefferson, since both imbue their characters with oratorical skill delivered in a deep bass. Malissa’s portrayal is more likely to be historically accurate, however, because Jefferson was reputed to be an awful orator with a squeaky voice. Malissa’s Washington booms, and I think it likely that Washington did as well.

Washington was, appropriately, true to his word about the photo op. While the corps were assembling in a courtyard getting ready to march to the main field for the first of their performances (six total, I believe), he strolled over and spoke with them, addressing them as though they were his own troops. The kids loved it. And then he struck a pose with them so that I could snap a few shots. The resulting photo is below and, if you click on it, it will take you to the album containing the rest of the photos from our trip to Mt. Vernon.

Another special occurrence during the Mt. Vernon trip was that the resident fifer there, Donald Francisco, who is retired from the US Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, joined the kids on the field. He is a tremendous musician who exudes enthusiasm for preserving our musical heritage. A brief write-up about him can be found here. Because of operator error (I left my camera set for indoor exposure while shooting outdoors–rookie stuff), I don’t have any really good shots of him, but here he is next to Jacqueline when they were posing with the First Lady.

As should be obvious, the Mt. Vernon trip was a great success from our perspective. The next venture was as well. But why did it have to come so soon afterward?

The next adventure was marching band camp, and our part was really only as a taxi service, but that was relatively significant since we live on the east coast of Virginia, and Sweetbriar College is located way out to the west, at the tail end of the state. Alright, I’m exaggerating a bit, but it is a solid four hours away. For some reason, likely because the organizers are all academic people who have their summers off, the camp was scheduled to run from a Thursday to a Monday, so two long workdays were spent driving out and back, then out and back again, to accommodate that activity. The kids loved it, however, and it got them both excited about participating in the upcoming band season, so I can’t complain. As someone who hacked around his whole adult life with drums and guitars and never really got anywhere with either, I’m extremely proud that both of my kids are actual musicians. I’ll make sacrifices.

And that’s a good attitude to have had, because the fun was not over. After picking the kids up from camp on a Monday, we drove up to Philadelphia the following Friday, and we spent the whole weekend there. Those of you keeping score will realize I’ve at this point taken four days off of work for all these shenanigans, so you can imagine the inbox train-wreck that was building.

Our first stop in the Philadelphia region was at Fort Mifflin, which is a hidden gem that needs some publicity to encourage a cash infusion. An official history pertaining to its role in the American Revolution (the fort played roles in succeeding conflicts as well) can be found here. In a nutshell, it is this: In 1777, a force of 400 revolutionaries held off a very determined British assault for six weeks, including a period during which a reputed 1,000 cannonballs per hour were fired at the fort, and so delayed the resupply of Howe’s troops in Philadelphia that Washington was able to establish winter quarters at Valley Forge, from whence he led his troops to glory. The outgunned defenders finally slipped away across the river to New Jersey one night, with 40 men fighting a rearguard action until they, too, managed to slip away, leaving the fort ablaze but with the flag still flying.

Pretty cool history, right? And yet the buildings are falling into dilapidation. A fellow I met who was working on restoring some of the windows told me he had grown up directly across the river in New Jersey and never heard of the place. That’s a shame. So give the place a visit. If you’re into the “paranormal,” the place is reputed to be one of the “most haunted” in the US, and they allow “private investigations.” Whatever. Throw them a couple of bucks.

Arriving in the middle of the day on a Friday, we drew a very small crowd who received a very exclusive performance. They seemed to appreciate it.

Afterward, a staff member gave the kids a truly lively cannon demonstration. She was a very enthusiastic presenter.

We finished the day with cheese steaks at Pat’s.

Saturday morning, we traveled into Philadelphia proper, where the corps gave two performances in Independence National Historical Park. The crowds there were predictably large, as were the crowds at the Museum of the American Revolution-Philadelphia (sister-museum to the one in Yorktown), where the corps performed later in the afternoon. In addition to the performances, the kids toured Independence Hall (where the Declaration of Independence was signed), the aforementioned museum, and the Philadelphia Mint. Long day!

Sunday morning, we headed to Valley Forge.

At both Valley Forge and the Museum of the American Revolution, we saw our old friend Dean portraying Washington in the video exhibits, tying the month’s journeys together. It was sobering to learn from one of those exhibits that the force of 2,000 men that Washington brought into the encampment dwindled to 1,000 by winter’s end, mostly because of disease. Those were truly the “times that tried men’s souls.” But then the force swelled again to 4,000 in the Spring with the arrival of new recruits. Thank you, Thomas Paine?

At Valley Forge, the corps performed both at the National Memorial Arch, and at Washington’s headquarters. Both venues drew decent-sized crowds, which was gratifying for the kids.

Although the trip up to Philly went smoothly on Friday, we ran into traffic on the trip home Sunday, so it was 2200 by the time we returned to Corps headquarters, making it a truly long weekend. Arduous as our journeys may have been, I think we gained a bit more appreciation for the men who performed the same journeys on foot, multiple times, over the course of years, in the cause of independence. Sounds sappy to say, but I really think about that every time I drive the corridor so well-traversed during both the American Revolution and the Civil War–I think, “Those guys did it on foot.” It makes me feel spoiled.


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